Secret Forest of Dean by Mark Turner
A native of the Welsh border town of Monmouth, I was from an early age aware of the Forest of Dean. Although situated predominantly in the neighbouring English county of Gloucestershire, the forested area spreads into Wales just beyond Staunton village. Undeterred by the county boundary, it creeps on down the slopes towards my childhood home on Monmouth’s Hadnock Road, beside the River Wye. I was no more than six or seven years of age when my parents would take me walking on summer days up through the dense woods towards a hilltop clearing near Staunton. This provided a splendid panorama that my father would proclaim to be ‘the finest view in England’. My mother would then produce sandwiches and a flask of coffee from a wicker basket and we’d enjoy a simple but satisfying picnic. On more than one such occasion we caught sight of a deer wandering nearby and it was common to hear the mewing calls of buzzards circling high above. These were happy days indeed.
A few years later I took to exploring a little deeper into the Forest. Together with a school-friend who, like me, paid scant regard to personal safety, I clambered over and around Staunton’s impressive Buckstone and Suckstone boulders, and then went on to edge precariously over disused railway bridges that crossed the River Wye. On one memorable occasion my chum and I decided to explore the damp and musty interior of a long-disused railway tunnel on the course of the Wye Valley Railway, but retreated hastily on finding the darkness virtually impenetrable. Still later, as a teenager, I was taken into a Forest coal mine near Coleford – this activity reinforcing my impression of the Forest as a somewhat dark and mysterious landscape, full of secret places.
Within a few years I left Monmouth and its neighbouring Forest area, later settling in the picturesque North Cotswolds, on the other side of Gloucestershire. I never lost my love of the Forest, though, and often returned to explore unfamiliar parts of the district. By this time I’d begun writing books about the county and its folklore, discovering the Forest to be a rich source of material. As a schoolboy I’d occasionally overheard yarns about bears being killed in the Forest, and stories of ghosts and apparitions were far from uncommon. In more recent years numerous people have reported seeing big cats, such as leopards and panthers, in the Forest – some of these sightings being particularly credible. Within the past twenty years, too, a significant wild boar population has colonised the Forest, following escapes and illegal releases.
Subsequently finding that of the many outsiders who knew of the Forest’s existence, few knew much about the place, I decided to set about writing a book on the district. My intention was to produce an accessible history of the Forest of Dean, focussing especially on all the kinds of secret places that had fascinated me since childhood. In the course of my research and exploration of the wooded areas I encountered wild boar on several occasions, although not at close quarters. Apparently there are now around 1,000 of these animals roaming the woods and there is talk of them having to be culled. The big cats are much more elusive, although one doesn’t have to search hard to find someone who claims to have seen one. Indeed, a trusted personal friend of mine saw what he believed to be a panther or leopard on the edge of the Forest a few years ago. On reporting the incident to the local police he was met with shrugged shoulders and an assurance that his was one of many similar reports. As for bear-killings, however, research revealed that the stories were indeed true – relating to an incident of 1889, when two muzzled and chained performing bears were killed at Ruardean by a mob from Cinderford. Fines followed, as did endless taunts of ‘who killed the bears?’
Included among the many lesser-known places described in Secret Forest of Dean are visible reminders of the many different peoples who have occupied the Forest through the centuries. There are Bronze Age standing stones, Iron Age hillforts and numerous signs of the Roman occupation – each of these sites possessing an air of mystery and secrecy. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Forest’s natural resources were being exploited on a grand scale, with coal and iron mines springing up all over the place. Mining was arduous and dangerous work, however, and loss of life was not uncommon. Several memorials to those who died can be seen in the Forest, although these are not always easy to locate. Secret Forest of Dean will prove useful in this respect, too, describing and pinpointing these monuments. A rail network was created to service these industries, with tramways and railway lines criss-crossing the Forest and running down to the River Severn and River Wye.
Eventually, of course, the coal and minerals became exhausted and one by one the mines closed. The last of the big pits closed in the mid-1960s, almost all of the railways, too, closing over a similar period. Today there is little obvious evidence of these industries, although poignant and curious relics are there to be found by enthusiasts. A number of these old bridges, tunnels and former lines – which are described in Secret Forest of Dean – evoke a real sense of nostalgia and wistfulness. Fortunately, many of the Forest’s former railway track-beds and industrial sites have been imaginatively used to create cycle-ways, viewpoints and nature reserves. Today the district is a popular holiday destination for those wishing to explore the ancient Forest of Dean and neighbouring Wye Valley. Secret Forest of Dean is likely to appeal to holidaymakers and local residents alike. Caution is advised, though – reports of ghosts and apparitions, alien big cat sightings and ‘rampaging’ wild boar continue to circulate in what is undoubtedly a somewhat secret and mysterious part of Gloucestershire!
Mark Turner's book Secret Forest of Dean is available for purchase now.